Snow job leads to a reporter's exit

 

There's an old saying in Colorado's ski country regarding weather reports and predictions of snowfall: "I'll believe it when I'm shoveling it."

That's what I was thinking to myself several weeks ago as I sat on my couch, sifting through some ideas for a weekly opinion column in the western Colorado-based Summit Daily News, where I was, until recently, employed as a reporter. Little did I know that my musings on the weather would lead to the sudden end of my reporting career with that newspaper.

As I often do when I'm writing, I turned on The Weather Channel. Like many avid skiers, I'm always on the lookout for snow as the season approaches.

On this particular weekend, a wicked upslope storm was pounding the Denver area and the foothills with snow. When The Weather Channel zeroed in on Colorado, I looked up to see a former colleague at the Summit Daily doing a stand-up interview with weather reporter Mike Seidel. These days, the ex-Summit Daily reporter works public relations for Vail Resorts, by far the biggest ski company in Colorado.

So I set down my laptop and watched, getting the distinct impression that Vail Resorts was trying to create a perception of widespread snow in Colorado. In my mind, the simple fact that Vail Resorts was represented in the interview was part of that effort; otherwise, why not interview a weather expert who might present some fact-based information?

I understand that The Weather Channel is as much about entertainment as it is about the weather. But many people still rely on the station for accurate information. So it irked me to see that there was no mention of the fact that on my side of the Rockies – the western side -- it was warm, dry and sunny. No snow at all, no boon for skiers at Vail Resorts. That glaring omission seemed another sign that truth in weather reporting was at risk. I wouldn't call it a conspiracy to sell more season passes, but then again, those passes are a key source of revenue for Vail Resorts these days.

About that same time, the chairman of Vail Resorts sent out a photo of snow on the deck of his house near Boulder -- on the eastern side of the Rockies. That's when I decided to write a column about the weather; how it's reported and how it's sometimes subject to a bit of massaging by the ski resorts.

The first part was easy. I explained the conditions that lead to an upslope storm. Then I gently chided Vail Resorts for its spin on the weather and suggested that the ski areas and the mountain communities nearby would be better served in the long term by honesty and transparency.

Apparently, I hit a nerve, because Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail, called me a few hours after the column was published to complain that I had questioned his personal integrity. I told him that I've lived in the mountains for a long time and that I recognize a snow job when I see one. Katz replied that the column called into question his company's ability to work with me and my newspaper.

A few days later, I was called into the publisher's office. I was told that the ski company had pulled its advertising and that as a result it would be difficult for the newspaper to make up a quarterly budget shortfall. I was also told that I had a lot of groveling to do if I wanted to repair the situation. I was shaken at first, but a few days later, I asked my editor to back me up. Wishful thinking on my part.

I was fired a week later, for reasons "not directly related to the column," according to an e-mail from the editor, who claimed that my termination was the consequence of a long record of issues that had been documented in annual reviews. As icing on the cake, the paper offered me about $3,000 not to talk about the termination. I didn't take it.

This whole thing leaves me still shaking my head. Not that I've given up reporting the facts as I see them. These days, I write stories for my new Web site, the Summit County Voice. I'm planning to set it up as a nonprofit, grassroots community news source, published only on the Web. I may even take some time out to enjoy some skiing -- when it snows.

Bob Berwyn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Frisco, Colorado.

Response to Bob Berwyn's Blog
Kelly Ladyga
Kelly Ladyga
Jan 08, 2010 09:11 AM
I'd like to respond to Bob Berwyn's account of what transpired. First rule of journalism: Get all of the facts and verify those facts. Since Bob was at the center of this situation, I think perhaps it's difficult for him to be objective about everything.

We in no way threatened or asked for Bob Berwyn to be dismissed. We simply expressed disappointment when very serious allegations about us were made and we had not been contacted beforehand for comment. Since Rob and all of us have worked with Bob many times and thought we had a relationship whereby we could call one another when there was an issue, we thought there was nothing wrong to call him and Jim Morgan to express our disappointment. Bob knows full well that happens every day at every newspaper across the country. We expect the media to hold us accountable, and they do, but that also means that anyone should be able to hold the media accountable, especially when balance and fairness are at issue. We work with journalists every day across Colorado, the country and the globe. There have been many stories written or broadcasted about us that we may not have liked or agreed with, but never have we threatened someone's position because of our disappointment.

Second, we do not exaggerate snowfall totals. We adhere to the guidelines of measuring and reporting snowfall totals that Colorado Ski Country put together for all of the resorts and we are completely transparent with our reporting - after all, our web cams do not lie. We are unaware of any credible allegations of us misrepresenting snowfall. Furthermore, our guests and employees share real-time, accurate information about snow conditions through social media. Several of our employees did tweet from their personal accounts (which are completely transparent in their profiles about where they live) that our corporate offices were closing early during the big mid-October storm which shut down most of the Front Range for two days - when our ski resorts were not open for the winter. We, like many others in Colorado, enjoy celebrating snow. There's absolutely nothing inappropriate or disingenuine about that.

Third, our company advertises in numerous local, national and international publications and websites that often say things we don’t like, but that in no way affects our advertising policy with them. What is of serious concern to us is not being treated fairly by misrepresenting facts (and not inclined to correct mistakes) or, even worse, not contacting us at all for comment on stories about us - and especially when this becomes a regular pattern of behavior over time, as was the case with Bob’s reporting on stories about us. We hold the media accountable in the same way that we expect to be held accountable.

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz blogged about what happened, as did the publisher of the Summit Daily News in the paper.
http://news.vailresorts.com/article_displa…

I have worked with Bob for a long time in my public relations capacity here at Vail Resorts and can name numerous instances, particularly in the past two years, where it seemed unimportant for him to contact us for comment on a story involving one of our resorts or company, in the interest of fairness and balance in reporting.

I would encourage you to consider the facts of this story, not just one person's account.

Kelly Ladyga
VP Corporate Communications
Vail Resorts

snow job
Pedro Eazy
Pedro Eazy
Jan 08, 2010 11:21 AM
This is a response? What about Bob's column was unfair? Please explain it to me. Can Vail actually respond to the substance of Bob's article? It seems to me that Vail is snow-jobbing again, and working further to discredit Bob. Vail requires that any stories written about them include an opportunity for comments by Vail Resorts??? wha? Big Britches indeed....
Publicity that money can't buy
Jim Greer
Jim Greer
Jan 08, 2010 01:43 PM
Hmmm, looks like I posted my first comment in the wrong place...not sure if it matters...

Wow, congratulations Kelly. If I were Vail Resorts, I’d be looking for a new VP of Communications (and a new CEO). First rule of Corporate Communications: “Know when to keep your mouth shut.”

Let me elaborate for you. Here I sit in Montana writing this. I don’t normally follow skiing news in Colorado. I never even heard of “Vail Resorts” before this. But, because of your CEO’s inability to bite his tongue and keep his mouth shut, I now know who you are, and you can rest assured that I won’t be spending any of my money at one of your resorts. You can also rest assured that I’m not alone. All this over a relatively minor and meaningless article. Now that’s the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. Hope it was worth it.
A good spin
Jon L
Jon L
Jan 11, 2010 10:58 AM
Being a skier from Colorado, my opinion of Vail Resorts is not very favorable. Vail Resorts caters to those customers that are going to spend the most money during their visit which happens to be visitors from out-of-state since locals are less likely to stay at one of their resorts. This approach has backfired for them during the troubled economic conditions. The Weather Channel segment was an excellent opportunity for Vail to get out-of-staters excited about skiing at their resort...had snow been in the forecast. It is clear to me that Vail made an effort to "fake" their snow totals or at least give the allusion that their snow levels were better than they actually are.
Vail's response is an overreaction for being called onto the carpet. They threw their weight around threatening to pull advertising for a story that was not favorable to them. CEO Rob Katz and Kelly Ladyga are simply spinning the story. While I agree that Bob Berwyn should have contacted Vail Resorts before "running the story", Vail Resorts, in my opinion, has lost even more credibility. Admit that you made an error, and move on.
More snow jobs?
Jim Greer
Jim Greer
Jan 11, 2010 11:53 AM
Just saw this article with some more interesting information about how the ski industry inflates (or used to) their reports. Check it out: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/[…]/

Hey Rob and Kelly, better get on the phone fast and see if you can get that reporter fired, plus those pesky researchers at Dartmouth.
vale PR you're really digging yourselves deeper
Britton Kerin
Britton Kerin
Feb 02, 2010 01:03 PM
Suuure, you never threaten a position, you just pull advertising
and let the editor figure it out. Ludicrous claims of virtuous standards aren't going to help you. Time for a new PR guy.

In general the bully-the-editor tactic is *dead* guys,
when it blows up it blows up bad, its just not worth it.

Britton
Editorial issue
Noah Brenner
Noah Brenner
Jan 08, 2010 03:27 PM
While I admit I only have one side of this issue - the Berwyn side - I find it pretty disheartening that Mr. Berwyn's editor and/or publisher didn't back him up on this.
A big resort like Vail complaining about its coverage is not outrageous, its expected, especially when these resorts make up a big portion of a small-town economy.
The fact the Mr. Berwyn was fired over this (if, as he says, this was his sole transgression) is outrageous.
It makes be grateful I had editors with higher standards and thicker skin than those at the Summit Daily News.
As for Vail, lighten up guys, its not like anyone believes ski resort weather reports anyway.
Ski weather spin is no novelty
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Jan 11, 2010 11:39 AM




    The ski industry's effort to spin the weather has been around for years. In December of 1980, a season of dismal snowfall, I visited some friends in Breckenridge. On the radio I heard there was a 32-inch base.



    Their hillside home on the east side of town provided a fine view of some ski runs, and on the valley floor I could see sagebrush -- most of each plant, and sagebrush are about a yard high. I's have been surprised if there was more than a foot of snow on the ground.



    "How can they claim they've got 32 inches?" I asked my friend, who worked at the ski area (he had been the Silverthorne police chief until he got fired for using too many big words in his reports).



    "It's easy," he said. "They lie."



    Another industry weather spin works like this: The powder is falling abundantly on the slopes, but miraculously, the highways to the high country are clear.



    Leadville writer Steve Voynick explored this angle years ago in a hilarious piece that appeared in the Denver Post; it was later reprinted in the little magazine I then published, Colorado Central.



    It's available on-line at: http://cozine.com/[…]/



    So I don't have a bit of trouble believing Bob's account of events. He did some free-lance work for our magazine, and I found him to be an honest and conscientious writer.


ski weather
Jennifer Cox
Jennifer Cox
Jan 11, 2010 04:50 PM
As a former resident of Summit County I am all too familiar with the skewed weather reporting. We used to have a saying that you take the lowest forcasted amount of snow and half it and you have your total. For example 8-10 inches tonight! Actually resulted in 4 or less inches (usually less).

Yes, it is unfortunate that Vail and others (they are not alone) use this marketing technique, but as skiers we were used to relying on other sources for our information. What a blessing it was to live in the county and see with my own eyes what the totals were as opposed to those that realize how bad it actually is when they step out of their car after a three hour hell drive.

Keep it up Bob, there are many of us that support you and will continue to do so!
snow job
Cara
Cara
Jan 13, 2010 05:53 PM
In journalism school we're taught that there's a firewall between advertising and editorial, and are encouraged to explore and uncover stories just like this one. Unfortunately, in today's climate this division between the newsroom and the paper's ad revenue has grown thin and tattered. What if Bob had reported on Vail Resorts' dumping of toxic chemicals or serving unsafe food? If the company pulls advertising based on critical news coverage, what power, if any at all, does the paper have to report the truth?
Berwyn on Vail
Walt G.
Walt G.
Jan 21, 2010 10:50 PM
Cara, I agree. If a reporter can't expose the real snowfall, could a report toxic chemicals or unsafe food?
Egomania in Broomfield
CO Native
CO Native
Jan 18, 2010 01:31 PM
I believe the thing to keep in mind is that no one in the ski industry or public wants to even hear a peep from Broomfield and the money-managers who run Vail's lodging. They are not the ski industry or the area.

Every time an out-of-industry entity gains power, they want to be the rock star, have their name on the releases, and generally pimp themselves as the soul of the resorts.

Who the skiers, the industry professionals, and the manufacturers want to hear from are the people who worked their way up through the actual mountains and have the mountain cred to speak on the issues. (Unfortunately, most of these VRI veterans have been fired or downsized in the last 3-4 years as the money-managers cleaned house to make quarterly returns.)

If VRI were my resort group, my rule would be: No news, no phone calls, no marketing programs ever originate from Broomfield. Ever. Let the mountains keep their authenticity. Let the money people deal with stockholders. Don’t imagine that one area of expertise gives you any respect in another.
Snow job
Bob Berwyn
Bob Berwyn
Jan 22, 2010 08:33 AM
I've never said that VR threatened me or asked to have me fired. That's an oft-repeated deflection that's been used to draw attention away from some of the real issues.

Readers are always welcome to call me or the paper to discuss stories and welcome to write a letter to the editor in response or to comment directly on the story. I've often used those types of conversations to do a followup story.

The fact is, VR did pull some advertising after the opinion column appeared and shortly thereafter I was fired.

It's true that I didn't always call VR for a comment on every single story I did that mentioned the company. In some cases, I used my judgment to decide if it was needed to make the story fair. In other cases, I felt I knew that the response would be a standard, canned PR answer that would not add anything to the story. And sometimes it was difficult to get a timely response.

Also, I have an outstanding reputation for reporting stories accurately and have rarely heard from VR or other sources that I got the facts wrong or misquoted someone, or took quotes out of context. Not to say I haven't made unintentional mistakes in my reporting because I have, and I've always corrected them at the earliest opportunity.

I'd like to add this: Since I've started www.summitvoice.org, I've asked VR to comment several times on stories related to the ski resorts and so far have not received any response other than a "no comment."

Vail overrated
J
J
Jan 23, 2010 12:42 PM
The fact is that Vail is an overrated resort to begin with. Copper is much better, although Vail has the nicer town. Admittedly, Beaver Creek is pretty good too.

It does not surprise me the least bit that the Vail Corporation would deceive and extort.
Kudos to Bob
Jamie Schectman
Jamie Schectman
Aug 21, 2010 01:53 PM
The ski industry needs to be held accountable for their actions. At our local ski area, we used to refer to the snow report as the "fantasy phone". Being transparent and making decisions based on what is correct, not only for profit, will be a great and welcome change in the ski industry!

Vail, shame on you for firing someone because they called you out. As far as I am concerned, YOUR FIRED!